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May 15, 2017

Book Notes - Paula Cocozza "How to Be Human"

How to Be Human

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Paula Cocozza's debut novel How to Be Human is an impressive literary thriller.

The Economist wrote of the book:

"Cocozza brilliantly captures a sense of Hitchcockian, curtain-twitching intensity... Like the scent of a fox, truth and fact in How to Be Human start to evaporate. What is left behind is a pervasive sense that beneath the veneer of civility, something wilder is always lurking."

In her own words, here is Paula Cocozza's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel How to Be Human:

How to Be Human is set in east London, and tells the story of a woman who becomes obsessed with a fox. Like a lot of people she - Mary - is missing something, missing lots of things. She has a hankering for a connection with wildness, and when the fox turns up in her yard one day, she thinks he has come for a special purpose - if only she could work it out. His appearance, and subsequent ahem communications, trigger a long process of emotional rewilding which could appear quite crazy or perfectly sensible, depending on your point of view. In the loneliness of the city, all you have to do is open your window, or even an eye, to find a mass of wildlife that listens back.

Maybe because of these themes, writing the book felt like a kind of burrowing. When I started to write How to Be Human, my children were two and five, I had a job (as a writer at the Guardian) and I'd started an MA in creative writing. Time, especially silent time, was so rare and precious that I never chose to play music while I wrote. I pulled down the blind to keep the room dark. I shut the door. However, some songs slipped into my head - some even slipped under the door - and provided company and encouragement while I worked.

"Lay Down Your Weary Tune" by Bob Dylan
I have loved listening to Dylan since I was 16, but oddly this is not a song that I ever paid much attention to. However, it came to me while writing the book. The book filled every gap that the rest of life left. I don't remember having more than a couple of evenings out in about two years. Writing was consuming. Another world had lined the inside of my head like a second skin, and I had to pretend for much of my life - at work or at home - that really there was nothing there, that it was no bother, demanding neither time nor effort of me that should have been spent elsewhere. (I'm not sure how convincing I was.) At night, I'd get into bed, and although I hadn't played it for about 25 years, this song would strike up in my head. "Lay Down Your Weary Tune, lay down… Lay down the songs you strum and rest yourself neath the strength of strings…" I'm not sure I ever got much further than that. I like to think that it was Dylan's idea of the medium being so bound with life that appealed to me, the thought that the strings themselves, which seemed so demanding, were also supportive. But each night I curled up inside my story and soothed myself with this tune.

"Blue Valentines" by Tom Waits
The album Blue Valentine was the endless accompaniment to my weekly undergraduate essay crisis. It was not my favourite album by Waits, but that was the point. I have never wanted to listen to something I like too much while I'm trying to think. As an undergrad I remember the needle going round and round in the middle of the disc, putting it back to the beginning, and playing it out again and sometimes coming to with the needle whispering on the vinyl again. I could stay up all night writing an essay, with this album turning beside me. With the novel, I didn't have any way to play music near the desk. But when I needed to keep myself going, I'd hum "Blue Valentines… Blue Valentines…" Those two words kept me going through the late shifts.

"You Can Get It If You Really Want" by Jimmy Cliff
I have said that I had no music player near the desk, and I wrote in the bedroom with a shut door and a drawn blind. I like it dark. But I share the house with my husband and children - and at the weekends, when I had my little bit of locked-away time, their music would seep beneath the door, a bit like pleasant cooking odours. Sometimes the sound was irresistible. I'd race down the stairs and we all would dance and sing to this song. Everyone likes singing ‘You can get it if you really want…'

"Back to Black" by Amy Winehouse
Winehouse is the only musician named in the book. She provides the soundtrack to an encounter between the protagonist, Mary, and her ex-fiance, Mark. It was Winehouse they listened to the night they first met, finding good things in Amy's bad. I think "Back to Black" entered my head partly because the timing was right - it was released in 2007 which, in the book's timeline, was when Mary and Mark met. The song plays in the book at a moment when both characters are battling for control of their relationship, or what's left of it. Sometimes singing well about losing can feel like a victory and the scene, a sex scene, that follows this track in the book teeters on the brink of that question.

"The Beast in Me" by Johnny Cash
I love this song. No one sings a story like Johnny Cash. The first tapes my brother and I ever bought as kids were Johnny Cash. His narrators tend to have an interesting way of talking about their own wildness or misdeeds or crimes. I've always liked ‘beast' stories, The Beast in the Jungle being another favourite. How to Be Human is really the story of one woman's emotional rewilding. It's a different kind of beast, but the idea of presenting what we don't or cannot know as something that refuses to be tamed plays out in this song. I had it in mind.

"Severed Crossed Fingers" by St Vincent
In the two years of writing, I didn't go out much, but on a rare escape I saw St Vincent at the Roundhouse in London. She was magnetising. I felt I was inside a different head for once, and the physicality and brutality of her lyrics are so rousing. "Spitting out guts from their gears… Draining our spleen over years". I love the way she puts her body on the line in her art.

"Tangled Up In Blue" by Bob Dylan
It feels right to start and end with Dylan. He is the artist who has been with me through most in my life. I'm including this song because some of the few escapes while writing How to Be Human came as car journeys. I remember looking out the window, my story spooling through my mind, Dylan singing beside me. This song always helped. He goes out on a limb of pain in this - a reminder to push on into the bits that hurt.

Paula Cocozza and How to Be Human links:

Economist review
Guardian review
Irish Times review
Kirkus Reviews review
The National review
Observer review
Publishers Weekly review

Guardian essay by the author
Irish Times profile of the author
Islington Gazette profile of the author

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